In the Victorian era, men gave eloquent death bed statements. (“Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees” being among the most famous.) Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a man of old-fashioned values and a deep sense of history, instead left us a letter. That letter reads, in part:
“Fellow Americans” – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.
However, he reminded us we are great because we are brave and good and empathetic:
We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
As we’ve all been bemoaning the loss of the last great man of the Senate, he instructs us to keep our chins up:
We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do. . . . Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.
The most remarkable line in an eloquent farewell is this: “Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening. I feel it powerfully still.” He thanks us for voting for the other guy. Now that is grace.
Some choose to serve in the armed forces or in government, others defend our democratic institutions, and still others protest and rally the opposition. As citizens, the least we can do is to vote, denounce intolerance, disdain ignorance and maybe contemplate the closing lines of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
In reading McCain’s farewell letter, his longtime adviser and friend Rick Davis explained, “The president will not be, as far as we know, attending the funeral. That’s just a fact.” And thank goodness. The event would be both lost on Trump and diminished by his presence. It is a time for patriots to come together, reflect on why McCain is revered and, I pray, rediscover the largeness of spirit and devotion to our country that McCain exemplified. Who knows? Perhaps it will be a time to reaffirm “the better angels of our nature.”